A life without Love is not worth living. This is something which I have become keenly aware of during my 14 years in prison. However, Love in prison is a fleeting painful thing.
With a few rare exceptions, I have never gotten to hug the people I Love outside prison. Some of them I have never spoken to on the phone, or even so much as seen a picture of some of them. But, I still Love them. Some are my friends. Some, my family-of-choice. Every time I get a letter from one of them or get to spend time chatting on the phone, it pushes the numbness away. Makes me feel. Makes me feel good. But during those stretches when I don’t get a letter, or I can’t get them on the phone, it hurts in an empty “what’s the point” kinda way. I am reminded just how precious and important they are to me.
Finding Love across prison walls is difficult. On the other hand finding Love within prison is downright dangerous. There are many reasons for this.
The first and foremost is the cops. There are two different infractions which criminalize relationships. The WAC 244 infraction disallows “sexual displays of affection” including holding hands and hugging. The 504 infraction disallows engaging in sexual activities. Furthermore, even if an incarcerated couple don’t get either of those infractions, they can still have a “keep separate” put in place between them by the DOC if a staff member accuses them of being in a romantic relationship. Normally, keep separates are used to separate people who have been involved in organized rule breaking, or who have physically fought each other. The DOC treats Love the same as Assault.
The next hurdle to being in a caring loving relationship in prison is, as messed up as it sounds, the other people in prison. Everyone who comes to prison carry massive amounts of trauma from not just what brought them to prison, but from the experience of incarceration as well. This means that whenever I open my heart to another person in prison, I’m risking the other person not being able or willing to open their heart to me. And even if they do open their heart to me, it takes a massive amount of work to keep the relationship healthy. In addition to all the stuff people have to navigate to have a healthy relationship, there’s a-whole-nother level brought on by having to keep from trauma bonding (as opposed to healthy bonding), and having to hide the relationship from the cops (under threat of being separated).
I spent the first decade of my prison sentence completely unable to bring forth the trust necessary to Love anyone in prison. To me, care looked like a manipulation tactic. I was terrified and stuck in toxic scripts from my childhood. Even if someone had managed to get me to trust them enough to get close, there was a very high probability we would have become codependent and emotionally abusive.
Thankfully, I waited until I was ready to open my heart before getting into a relationship and avoided the pain of being hurt by another person and thinking that’s Love.
Being in a healthy, loving, care centered, romantic relationship in prison is like creating a private land of Joy while living in the darkest cave of Tartarus. Being able to be with a person I care about, and who cares about me is liberating. The simple happiness which comes from a hug, a touch, a look, which says “you matter to me.” And even more so being able to have this every day? I can’t think of anything more extremely opposite of what prison stands for.
Having experienced Love like that, in a place like this, makes me understand why the DOC criminalizes Love. They fear us creating our own freedom between the treads of their boot heel.